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ABC’s Rebel Wastes Talent on Fictional Version of the Erin Brockovich Legacy

Erin Brockovich serves as a producer on ABC’s “Rebel,” a show built around her celebrated ability to navigate unjust systems in her pursuit of justice. As a Brockovich avatar, the great and still-underrated Katey Sagal plays Annie “Rebel” Bello, a vocal warrior for justice who has difficulty balancing her personal life and very public causes. It’s not a bad idea for a Thursday night ABC drama in the mold of “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” the latter on which creator Krista Vernoff was a credited writer on over two dozen episodes. However, the execution is another story. The second episode settles into itself and moves away some of the premiere's more egregious flaws, but it’s still a misfire, more content with being atrociously manipulative than using its characters and concept in a manner that feels remotely genuine or nuanced. Subtlety may not be the hallmark of Thursday night dramas, but there’s still a breaking point and “Rebel” hits it.

Rebel has a lot on her plate. In the first scene, she confronts a corporate bigwig (Adam Arkin) about a heart valve that has apparently caused more harm than good, killing too many patients with its defects. Rebel is working this case against a major corporation from every angle, and there’s something interesting here about how hard it can be for David to take on Goliath. It takes more than just passion and commitment. Outside of the public eye, Rebel is pushing the widower of her best friend, an attorney named Julian Cruz (Andy Garcia) to take the heart valve case. She’s also visiting patients, including a dying woman named Helen (Mary McDonnell), and trying to get her gynecologist son Nate (Kevin Zegers) to help lead a study into the defects.

Of course, even that’s not enough for an ABC melodrama. Rebel has two other children, superficially feeling like yin and yang balances to their mom. On the one hand, there’s the supportive Ziggie (Ariela Barer), a recovering addict who works with Rebel. On the other hand, there’s an attorney named Cassidy (Lex Scott Davis), who works with Cruz and is being wooed by her more corporate world father Benji (James Lesure). There’s a BFF/investigator that Rebel uses named Lana (Tamala Jones), and even a case of the week in the premiere about an abused woman who fought back against her husband with a knife. I almost forgot: Rebel has a husband named Grady (John Corbett), who may or may not be cheating on her.

Heart valves, abuse, miscarriages, death, addiction, infidelity—it’s a lot, and it’s all handled with the same superficial sensibility. Yes, Erin/Rebel fights the good fight, but the fight is diminished when plot points are used to push and manipulate. “Rebel” also doesn’t trust its audience, and it often doesn’t make sense—too few reasons are given as to why Cruz wouldn’t take a massive heart valve class action lawsuit beyond manufactured conflict, for example (although that's given some depth in the stronger second episode). Dialogue and plot points seem like they’re actively working against the cast. These are talented people, especially for the state of network TV in 2021, and the cast is enriched even further by the addition of the always-great Abigail Spencer in episode two.

To be fair, modern network TV has an increasingly desperate habit of overreaching in pilot episodes. It makes sense in an era of increasing choices through the prominence of streaming services, that network TV boardrooms are more desperate than ever to grab viewers quickly. But the righteous screenwriting here has all the depth of a tweet, lacking any real character detail or complexity. Everyone is good or bad, everything is black or white, all conflicts are obvious, all sides are easy to take. At one point early in episode two, someone has the nerve to ask, “Did you read that on a tea bag?” I may or may not have yelled something at the screen about the whole show being written on a tea bag.

What Steven Soderbergh so brilliantly captured in his film “Erin Brockovich” is reduced here to an archetype. Sagal, Garcia, McDonnell, Spencer, and even the strong young cast (none of them stand out as weaknesses) deserved better. These are past and potentially future award winners. Someone should fight back against the writing on this show that leaves them so desperately searching for something real to play. That’s the real injustice here.

Two episodes screened for review.


Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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